House of Commons
Tuesday 30 June 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Finding a covid-19 vaccine is a top priority for the Government. The Prime Minister has set up a vaccine taskforce and appointed Kate Bingham to lead it. The taskforce aims to secure access to promising vaccines for the UK population and to support access to vaccines to help bring the pandemic to an end. We have invested more than £130 million in research for the vaccine front-runners at the University of Oxford and Imperial College, London, and this is in addition to the £250 million that we have contributed to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the £1.65 billion to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
That is a really important point. The Prime Minister has made it clear that equitable access is an integral part of the UK’s approach to vaccine development and distribution. Only last weekend, he emphasised how all the world’s leaders have a moral duty to ensure that covid-19 vaccines are truly available to all. That is why the UK has contributed more than £313 million of UK aid to CEPI, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics. We have also committed £1.65 billion to Gavi over five years to strengthen immunisation for vaccine preventable disease in vulnerable countries.
Around the world, there are more than 100 programmes to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Can my hon. Friend confirm that our global diplomatic presence is assisting UK companies and universities to participate in those programmes, basically by using their local networks to highlight the significant expertise that the UK can contribute, but also vice versa to identify where those contacts can contribute to UK-based programmes, because this is truly a global effort?
Yes, our overseas network is working actively around the globe, particularly through our world-leading science and innovation network. The Vaccine Taskforce is also ensuring that work being done to find a vaccine in the UK complements and supports global efforts, including by providing industry and research institutions with resources and support. We welcome the announcement on 4 June of the innovative collaborations between AstraZeneca, CEPI, Gavi and the Serum Institute of India to support the production of 1.3 billion doses for global access to a potential covid-19 vaccine.
Israel is at the forefront of MedTech innovation, which presents many opportunities for the UK’s healthcare system, such as the use of AI technology in diagnostics and screening. Can my hon. Friend tell me what the Government’s plans are to strengthen partnerships between Israeli MedTech companies and UK researchers, particularly in the north-west, to help them not only develop a vaccine but better prepare for the potentiality of any future pandemic?
International collaboration is absolutely vital as we search for a vaccine, and finding a vaccine for covid-19 is a top priority for the Government. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we see vaccines as a global challenge and that no one country can do this alone. That is why the UK has called for clear global commitments from international partners to tackle the pandemic, including through the G7, the G20 and other international forums. The Prime Minister hosted a global vaccine summit on 4 June, which brought together more than 60 countries, including 44 Heads of State and Government, and raised an incredible $8.8 billion to support immunisation of more than 300 million children against vaccine preventable diseases.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Britain has demonstrated its global reach during this pandemic? May I thank the Department for listening to my representations on behalf of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent Central, who were repatriated from Kathmandu and Durban during lockdown, and ask that the Department use the same global reach to ensure that our world- class vaccine development work benefits the global community?
I know how hard my hon. Friend works in her Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency. Together, the Foreign Secretary, the ministerial team and the diplomatic network continue to galvanise international support and financial commitments to support research, development and equitable access to vaccines. Through ongoing research at Oxford University and Imperial College, London, the UK is leading the way in developing a coronavirus vaccine. We are also working with international partners to ensure that, wherever a vaccine is discovered, it will benefit the global community as a whole.
“The breadth of the work that DFID is involved in is exemplary…It is firmly in our national interest…As we have seen in recent years with the Ebola crisis”.—[Official Report, 13 June 2016; Vol. 611, c. 262.]
Those are not my words, but those of the Minister. Destabilising Britain’s efforts to tackle disease globally in the middle of a pandemic is not diplomatic; it is dangerous, and the hostile takeover by the Foreign Secretary has been slammed by 200 leading health and humanitarian agencies, Prime Ministers and MPs from both sides of the House, and those who have assessed the impact of mergers in Australia and Canada. Why does she think she got it wrong, they all got it wrong, and instead, it is Dominic Cummings who is right?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We served together on the International Development Committee several years ago, but to be absolutely clear, when it comes to the FCO and DFID merger, as the Prime Minister set out on 16 June we retain our commitment to spending 0.7 % of our gross national income on official development assistance, but it is through closer integration that we will maximise the impact of our aid budget. At the recent Gavi event—the global vaccine summit on 4 June—we mobilised the collective influence of diplomacy and development; it is an excellent example of what the two Departments working together can we achieve.
Sino-British Joint Declaration
Today China has enacted national security legislation. We are waiting for it to be published so that we can see the details and assess it against what we have said before. When that is the case, I will make an oral statement to update hon. Members. None the less, at this stage what I can say is that the imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong, rather than through Hong Kong’s own institutions, lies in direct conflict with China’s international obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration.
From what we know so far, it appears that Beijing has just voted to impose new hard-line national security laws on Hong Kong. They are widely thought to include a new law enforcement and intelligence agency to operate there, and to give the Chief Executive power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only through an internationally co-ordinated action that we will be able to safeguard the hard-fought-for rights and freedoms of those in Hong Kong?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and of course it is contrary to, we believe, China’s own interests and also China’s articulation of the relationship with Hong Kong through the one country, two systems policy. As she rightly says, we have been working very closely with our international partners, the EU and the G7, and, indeed, we are raising the issue with like-minded partners in the United Nations Human Rights Council shortly.
A number of commentators have been conversely saying that Hong Kong’s role as a financial centre may be buttressed by the national security law as Chinese companies look to list in Hong Kong, now that they are less welcome in the United States. What does my right hon. Friend make of this controversial assessment, and what are his predictions for the future of Hong Kong as an international financial centre and the implications for both London and British interests?
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. Of course, the success of Hong Kong—the entrepreneurial spirit, the vibrancy, the economic success—has been built on its autonomy in the one country, two systems paradigm. That clearly is under threat if China, as we now fear, has enacted the legislation and our worst fears in terms of the substantive detail are borne out; and of course it would be bad news for all international businesses, but, fundamentally, not just for the people of Hong Kong but for China. That is why, even at this stage, we would urge China to step back from the brink, respect the rights of the people of Hong Kong and live up to its international obligations through the joint declaration and to the international community.
China passed the national security law today. It is a direct challenge to the joint declaration and undermines not only the promises made to us, but those that we made to the people of Hong Kong. The Foreign Secretary told me in the House a few weeks ago that at its application, Britain would act. That law comes into force tomorrow. He must not waiver. Will he fulfil his promise to BNO passport holders? Will he stop dragging his feet on the Magnitsky legislation that he was once so keen to champion and give us a firm date? Will he confirm that this has now changed the Government’s thinking on Huawei? He said just a few weeks ago that we would
“live up to our responsibilities…to the people of Hong Kong”.—[Official Report, 13 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 769.]
It would be extraordinary were the UK to turn back now. We must live up to those responsibilities.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the Government’s position, which, as we have already made clear, if once the national security legislation is published—she has not seen it because I have not seen it and it has not been translated yet—[Interruption.] Yes, but she has not seen the legislation, so I think the right thing to do is to wait to see it, but as we have made clear, if it is as we expect then it would be not just a challenge, as she said, to the joint declaration; it would be a violation of the joint declaration. It would undermine the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong and the freedoms. I welcome her support. It is incredibly— [Interruption.] She says that it is weak; she has not read the legislation—she cannot have done because it has not been published. [Interruption.] No, so how can she say that it is weak? I have already made a commitment to the House that I will come here to make sure that all hon. Members can be updated, not just on what we will do on BNOs, which I can confirm we fully intend to see through, but any other action we want to take with our international partners.
West Bank: Planned Annexation
The UK’s position is clear: we oppose any unilateral annexation. It would be a breach of international law and risk undermining peace efforts. The Prime Minister has conveyed our position to Prime Minister Netanyahu on multiple occasions, including in a phone call in February and a letter last month. The UK’s position remains the same: we support a negotiated two-state solution based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as a shared capital and a pragmatic, agreed settlement for refugees.
Current sanctions are clearly not working as a deterrent for Israel’s plan to annex the west bank illegally. Strong words at this point are a betrayal of the Palestinian people—they need actions. Can the Minister outline what action the Government will take against annexation?
In 1980, the UN Security Council condemned Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and, in ’81, its illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. What lesson does the Minister think the Israeli Government took from the failure to see those Security Council resolutions adhered to? Are the UK Government abandoning the Palestinian people, as suggested in a recent open letter by UK charities?
The UK Government remain a friend of Israel and also a friend of the Palestinian people. We have continued to have dialogue both with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and with the Government of Israel, and we encourage them to work together to come towards an agreed settlement that will see a safe, secure state of Israel alongside a safe, secure and viable Palestinian state. There is still the opportunity for that negotiated settlement to be the outcome, and we will continue working with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to facilitate that.
World leaders are warning of consequences should annexation go ahead, but the silence from this Government has been deafening, so much so that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz says that France is now the world’s “last, best hope” to stop annexation. This really is shameful. I raised my concerns with the US ambassador—has the Minister? Will he commit to a ban on settlement imports and recognise Palestine, as this House voted to do? Forgive me, I may have missed it. If he will not do those things, can he tell us what exactly he is proposing to do?
The UK remains a friend and ally to the state of Israel and a good friend to the Palestinian people. It is tempting—and I am sure it will placate certain voices on the left of the political spectrum—to stamp our feet and bang the table, but we will continue to dissuade a friend and ally in the state of Israel from taking a course of action that we believe will be against its own interests, and we will do so through the most effective means available.
I listened carefully to the previous exchange, and I have much respect for the Minister, but I am not asking him to stamp his feet or bang the table—I am asking him to match the sensible position that he has outlined today on the illegal annexation of the already illegally claimed settlements with some actual action. No amount of warm words and sympathy are going to cut it in this discussion. My party, likewise, is a friend of the two-state solution. We are a friend of the Israeli state, and we are a friend of the Palestinians as well. We want to see a viable solution, but there is a lively debate that we can influence right now within Israel, and we need to put action on the table, not warm words and sympathy. Settlement goods should at the very least be labelled as illegal, and targeted sanctions need to be put on the table to focus the minds of the coalition. I urge him to act, not just talk.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken with his opposite number and other members of the Israeli Government, as have I and indeed our Prime Minister. We are working to dissuade Israel from taking this course of action. There will always be voices in British politics that would jump at any opportunity to bring in sanctions and disinvestment. We do not agree with those voices, and we will continue to work towards a negotiated two-state solution, using the diplomatic means we have at our disposal.
I appreciate that answer, and I would urge more. When Russia illegally occupied Crimea, the UK Government, with our support, implemented sanctions with the international community. We need that sort of action now, and I would urge the Minister to greater efforts than we have heard today.
I reiterated the UK’s position at the UN Security Council on 24 June. I made it clear that annexation would not go unanswered. However, I will not stand at this Dispatch Box in order, as I say, to placate some of the traditional voices in criticism of Israel when the best way forward is to negotiate and speak with a friend and ally, in the Government of Israel, to dissuade them from taking a course of action that we believe is not in their own best interests.
UK Relations with France
On 18 June, we welcomed President Macron and Foreign Minister Le Drian to London to commemorate the 80th anniversary of de Gaulle’s appel. President Macron presented the Légion d’honneur to London and the British people, and also met Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary held talks with the President and the Foreign Minister. France is a close neighbour, a key ally and a vital partner, and that day in particular really emphasised our country’s shared history and our future joint ambitions. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I continue to have regular phone calls with our French counterparts.
South Kensington is home to a very large and vibrant French community, many of whom now have dual nationality. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, whatever temporary disagreements we may have with France—during, for instance, Brexit negotiations —it will always remain one of our closest and most strategic allies?
I can assure my hon. Friend that France will remain one of our closest and most strategic allies. We will continue to co-operate on security, defence, development and foreign policy. In regard to EU negotiations, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the faster we can reach an agreement the better. We welcome the fact that the EU has agreed an intensified timetable and signed up to a sensible process to take the talks forward.
FCO Staff: Brussels
The UK mission to the EU, the UK delegation to NATO and the British embassy in Brussels collectively employ about 250 staff. UKMis was reinforced to support our exit negotiations, while still defending our continuing interests in EU decision making. UKMis will continue to be our principal interface with the EU after 31 December. The Government have launched an integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, and the future level of resourcing for all three missions will be determined following this review.
It is very disappointing that my hon. Friend has not got a target for the reduction in the number of bureaucrats in Brussels to take effect on 1 January next year. May I suggest that the target might be to reduce the current numbers of 250 down to 50? Can she explain why she does not think that is possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his follow-up question. As I am sure he would understand, as an independent country we of course want to have representation in Brussels because, after the transition period, what will be so important is promoting UK interests and UK influence overseas.
The UK is deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Yemen. We fully support the UN peace process and urge all parties to engage constructively with it. The UK has shown extensive leadership in this response, committing nearly £1 billion in support to Yemen since the conflict began. I recently conducted a virtual visit to Yemen, meeting special envoy Martin Griffiths, Yemeni Foreign Minister al-Hadrami and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam, and I urged all parties to engage with the UN peace process.
I have been contacted by constituents in Clwyd South about the vital importance of the UK’s humanitarian aid to Yemen. Does the Minister agree that the UK Government’s role in Yemen is a prime example of the joined-up foreign policy and development work that will be needed in the new merged Department?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is impossible to separate our development work from our wider diplomatic work. The greatest step forward that we could have for the people of Yemen is for the conflict to cease, so that we can concentrate solely on humanitarian support. Conflict resolution is a classic function of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, when I speak to the development partners in country, they prioritise conflict resolution, and the work of DFID and the work of the FCO therefore go hand in hand with supporting the people of Yemen.
There is an urgent and desperate need to continue to work to prevent hunger and suffering in Yemen. Please will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the prioritisation of covid, which is absolutely essential, will not come at the expense of some of the world’s most vulnerable people?
I completely agree that the UK’s response to coronavirus is important, but we have not allowed it to distract us from the important international work. I recently announced considerable funding support for the humanitarian work in Yemen. As I say, I have had extensive conversations with parties right across the board, and indeed with regional countries, to support the Saudi ceasefire and encourage the Houthis also to engage with that ceasefire. We will maintain our responsibility —we will match our responsibility to the people of Yemen, and I can absolutely guarantee that that will continue under this Government.
Yemen is facing a humanitarian disaster. According to UNICEF, there are 1.7 million internally displaced children and 2 million children who are acutely malnourished, so what conversations has the Minister had with other Government Departments to ensure that the UK can play its part in addressing this catastrophe?
The hon. Lady highlights the important work of properly connected government when it comes to UK foreign policy. That is absolutely what under- pins the Prime Minister’s integrated review and his announcement of the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She is absolutely right to suggest that, in order to protect the people of Yemen most properly, whether young or old, the UK Government must work with a co-ordinated approach. I regularly speak with ministerial colleagues in other Government Departments about Yemen, as well as with our international partners. I thank her for so clearly highlighting why it is important that Government Departments work closely on this, as on other issues.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office is a huge opportunity for the UK to have an even greater global impact as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and also as we prepare to hold the G7 presidency and host COP26 next year.
The Prime Minister thinks that international aid is a giant cashpoint in the sky and the Paymaster General wants to use the aid budget for a new royal yacht, so it is no wonder that 200 non-governmental organisations are against the proposed merger. It has also been claimed that international aid was undermining the diplomatic processes of the Foreign Office, so can the Secretary of State give me the No. 1 example of where foreign aid was used to undermine foreign policy that justifies the abolition of DFID?
I will give him an example if he waits a second. We think we can have a stronger impact if we integrate development policy and the aid budget with foreign policy. A good example is the GAVI summit, where we smashed the target and raised $8.8 billion. That is a great example where, led by the Prime Minister, we brought together our development heart and soul with our diplomatic muscle and reach. That is what we are going to do with this merger.
The Paymaster General suggests spending official development assistance money on another royal yacht, instead of on supporting aid workers and the world-class development NGOs based in the UK that save lives. How does that square with the established commitment that every penny of aid is and will continue to be committed to the sustainable development goals, or are we to expect that definition to fade, along with any substantive connection to the Government’s legal obligation to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. The examples of GAVI and COP26, the questions on Yemen and this pandemic all illustrate why bringing together all the different aspects of foreign policy—particularly bringing together aid and development policy with the Foreign Office’s network—is an opportunity for us to be bigger than the sum of our parts abroad and to have an even greater impact as a force for good.
The Foreign Secretary is correct that we are starting to manage covid-19 in the north, but in the global south it is causing chaos, decimation and loss of life, as can be seen from the Afghanistan figures today. Will he explain why, when DFID staff are trying their hardest to shore up the global south against covid-19, he has chosen this moment in time to bring forward a confusing, complicated and expensive merger? Is he still looking for the merger to be completed by 1 September? Will the 30% cuts in the ODA budget that the Treasury is asking for be in this financial year or in future spend?
I reassure the hon. Lady that we are still committed to delivering the merger by September. She asks, “Why now?”. The reality is that coronavirus has illustrated just why it is so important to have an integrated and aligned approach. We have achieved a huge amount through the international ministerial groups we have brought together, but it has also shown how much more powerful we can be as a force for good abroad if we bring all those different elements together, such as aid and the foreign policy network. The GAVI summit is one example, but there are others. We have a moral duty to support the most vulnerable countries around the world to protect them against and prevent a second wave, but it is also important to save the United Kingdom from the implications of that.
As chair of the all-party group on Malawi, I hope the Foreign Secretary will join me in welcoming the election of Lazarus Chakwera as the new President. Malawi has benefited from DFID investment in governance and democracy, and from the transparency initiative, for many years, which has perhaps contributed to this peaceful transition of power. What guarantee is there that in merging the two Departments, that kind of work, which DFID was able to specialise in and which might otherwise be forgotten about, will continue to be provided and properly scrutinised?
I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the free and fair election in Malawi. It is really important that such things take place in countries that do not have a history or pedigree of democratic transitions. While I agree with him entirely about that, I am afraid that I do not agree with the assumption in his question. From Kenya to Nigeria in Africa, let alone more broadly across the world, the experience in our missions is that we are most effective when we fully integrate and align the development aims and aid budget with the wider foreign policy strategy. That streamlining is precisely what the merger will help us do across the board.
May I welcome the words of my right hon. Friend this morning? When he listens to the different aid agencies that have supported the merger, such as the Carronbridge-based HALO Trust, does he realise that what they offer is a real change in how we do foreign policy, not just a change in the way we integrate foreign policy and aid at home? Having a forward-leaning, multinational organisation like DFID shaping the way our diplomats act and our embassies respond is a real opportunity to update the way the Foreign Office acts; it is not just about bringing the two Departments together.
I thank my hon. Friend, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is right to quote the HALO Trust. He is right that this is an opportunity. Indeed, it will mean significant cultural change for the FCO, not just for DFID. We want to merge and innovate to bring something that is, as I say, the sum of our parts, but also something different. In fact, just one of 29 OECD countries has a separate Development Ministry. I have been talking to the likes of Paul Collier and Professor Stefan Dercon about how we can achieve this in the way that delivers the best impact, particularly in relation to poverty reduction and things like climate change.
I am concerned by reports that as part of the DFID merger, the Government have agreed to pause all new aid spending, including the conflict, stability and security fund. At a moment of such global insecurity, that would be an extraordinary decision. In a week when the Government have fired their national security adviser, are stalling on re-establishing the Intelligence and Security Committee, and are delaying the Russia report, can the Secretary of State at least give me a cast-iron guarantee that conflict, stability and security funding will continue to be applied to new projects and that this Government are taking national security seriously?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that conflict prevention—humanitarian aid—is going to remain, if not be elevated, as one of the key strategic priorities of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. There has been no sustained pause, but we are having a review based on the economic figures that will apply given the impact of covid-19 on GNI. That will make sure that we can prioritise the aid budget in the places that need it most. I would have thought, if she is serious about this, that she would welcome that.
South China Sea
The United Kingdom is disturbed by reports of militarisation, coercion and intimidation in the South China sea. We note the presence of a Chinese research vessel in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in April and May this year, close to a Malaysian-contracted drilling operation. This has raised tensions in the region. We take no sides in sovereignty disputes. We are clear that the best way to reduce tensions in the South China sea is for all parties to resolve their disputes peacefully in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea. In May this year, officials raised our concerns directly with China about the recent incidents in the South China sea.
I am grateful for that reply, but it misses the bigger picture. China is tightening its grip on the South China sea, turning places such as the Spratly islands and Paracel islands into military bases, yet the west simply looks on. The UN has confirmed that this activity is actually illegal. Maritime shipping is now denied. The next step will be the airspace, and following that will be the fact that Taiwan will become all the more vulnerable. Can the Minister confirm that the UK does not approve of the nine-dash line and that we need to be more robust in standing up to China, which is taking advantage of the west’s risk-averseness?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He has a great deal of experience in this area. With regard to the nine-dash line, as I have said previously, we do not take a position on the underlying sovereignty claims in the South China sea, but we do urge all parties to be transparent: they need to clarify the extent and the legal basis of their claims. UNCLOS provides a comprehensive legal order for the seas and oceans. Any claim should be set out in a way that is consistent with UNCLOS and its arbitration rulings.
From the Himalayas to the South China sea, Beijing’s aggressive expansionism could have serious consequences for our national security, and yet our Government are absent from the global stage. The Chinese Communist party respects strength and unity and is contemptuous of weakness and division, but successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have been naive and complacent, and Beijing has exploited these weaknesses. Will the Government be making a robust statement of support for Taiwan given that Taiwanese airspace is repeatedly being buzzed by Chinese fighter jets? What steps are the Government taking to forge alliances with key partners in the EU, NATO and the Asia-Pacific democracies to build an international consensus that will enable us to push back against Beijing’s increasingly belligerent behaviour?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not necessarily agree that we have remained silent on this; in fact, we have been leading the international community. He was present yesterday during the urgent question on the human rights violations in Xinjiang. Our approach to China remains clear-eyed, and it is rooted in our values and beliefs. It has always been the case that where we have concerns, we raise them, and where we need to intervene, we will intervene.
Covid-19: Overseas Territories
We will always stand by the overseas territories. Government Departments, led by DFID and the FCO, are supporting them to respond to the pandemic. Baroness Sugg, the Minister for the Overseas Territories, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), are in regular contact with political leaders and governors to assess the situation and identify how the UK Government can best support them. So far, we have procured and delivered medical supplies to all inhabited overseas territories except Pitcairn, which has had no cases of covid-19. That includes delivering testing systems to six territories, enabling them to test for coronavirus for the first time, and boosting testing capabilities in three others.
I can confirm that we are working with the overseas territories to support their healthcare systems. In addition to the medical supplies and testing equipment that I mentioned, specialist health professionals from Public Health England provide ongoing advice and support to chief medical officers in each territory, and we have supported a number of them to recruit additional medical personnel.
South Derbyshire residents care about our deep relationship with our overseas territories, so will my hon. Friend update the House on what security assistance has been provided to the overseas territories to ensure that the UK Government are safe- guarding the wellbeing of their people?
It is great to answer a question from my predecessor, who did such a fantastic job as Minister for Asia. It is great to see her live this morning, albeit digitally. The UK Government take their responsibility to protect the safety and security of the people of the overseas territories very seriously. The Ministry of Defence and the Home Office have provided in-territory support to the Turks and Caicos Islands through a security assistance team of military personnel and police liaison officers. Twenty-nine additional military personnel supported Turks and Caicos to counter illegal migration from Haiti, which risks undermining the covid-19 response. Another team is in the Cayman Islands providing reassurance, security and logistics planning for covid-19, and we must also be conscious of the potential for hurricane responses in those areas.
Official Development Assistance Budget
We continue to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid, and that is enshrined in law. We will continue to be guided by the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, including a commitment to spending on reducing poverty, and we believe we will be stronger in that aim as one Department.
The Secretary of State will soon be responsible for a sizeable amount of official development aid, so can the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State for the future FCDO will be bound by the same rules for aid spending as the current International Development Secretary, including the four key Acts of Parliament that currently govern international development?
Those with long memories will remember the Pergau dam scandal of the 1990s, where the High Court found that the Government had unlawfully provided aid in exchange for a lucrative arms contract. That was one reason why the Labour Government made the Department for International Development a separate and independent Department from the Foreign Office. What steps will the Government be taking to ensure that we do not see a repeat of the Pergau dam scandal in the future?
The UK is rightly proud of its commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid. The decision by the Government to merge these Departments has been met with criticism by some world-leading international development charities. Former Prime Ministers have also criticised the decision, with David Cameron describing it as a “mistake”. Our international aid commitment can and does save lives, so will the Minister confirm that the budget for international aid will be ring-fenced within a future Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?
We are bound by law to spend 0.7%, so it is not a choice; it is in the law, and we will obey the law. I was one of David Cameron’s Ministers in the Foreign Office in that period, and I found a lack of joined-up thinking. I worked well with DFID, but I think this will work better as one Department and it has already worked better with a Joint Minister.
Since the last oral questions, I have called on China, with our international partners, to adhere to its international obligations to respect the autonomy and freedom of the people of Hong Kong; we have welcomed President Macron to the UK from France to celebrate and pay tribute on the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s appel; and I met E3 partners in Berlin last week to discuss Iran, the middle east peace process and ongoing negotiations in relation to Brexit.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that on Yemen we absolutely are part of the solution. I visited Saudi Arabia, where I had the chance not just to meet Saudi Ministers and members of the royal family, but to talk to the President of Yemen. We are fully supporting Martin Griffiths’ work as the UN envoy, and this is an exceptional example of where we can bring our aid budget—the significant contributions that we make—to alleviate the humanitarian plight, while also trying to resolve the broader conflict.
I am not going to be drawn down the tempting line offered by my hon. Friend, but he is right to say that the merger of our aid budget, and the heart and soul of our development expertise, with the Foreign Office network, and the diplomatic clout and muscle that we can contribute, will make our foreign policy more effective. I think I can give him a crumb of reassurance, which is that trade commissioners will be directly accountable to the ambassador or high commissioner in the specific post. That will make sure that we are more aligned and joined up, country by country, in the way he has described.
In the wake of revelations about potential Russian exploitation of the covid-19 pandemic here in the UK and press reports in recent days that Russian officials have paid bounties for British troops in Afghanistan—who have served for more than 10 years in that most dangerous region—does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s failure to produce the Russia report, which everyone in this House has been waiting for, shows just how weak the Government are on national security?
First, I know that the hon. Lady would not expect me to comment on intelligence matters or, indeed, intelligence matters from other countries. I can tell her that right across the board we work with our Five Eyes partners on some of the nefarious activities that Russia is engaged in. We work very closely, through our security presence in Afghanistan, to protect all our staff and British nationals. The Intelligence and Security Committee report of course awaits the formation of the new ISC, but I understand that it will be published shortly.
Not only have we had advice from the JBC in relation to the review of quarantine and the potential exemptions, but it has also helped to inform the approach on travel advice. There are of course strict legal requirements that we must go through when we revise travel advice. We are considering exempting certain countries and certain territories, and we will update our travel advice shortly. Indeed, I believe my right hon. Friend will find that the Secretary of State for Transport will today publish a written ministerial statement that will give further updates.
I know that the hon. Gentleman follows this issue assiduously. I have raised with the Indian Foreign Minister issues in relation to human rights in Kashmir. We continue to regard it as a bilateral dispute that needs to be resolved between Pakistan and India, but the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised are important, we are concerned about them and we do raise them with the Indian Government.
As I set out in my statement on 19 June, in relation to cyber-attacks we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Australian close friends, partners and allies. We work closely across all Five Eyes partners to strengthen our resilience, and that applies in relation to cyber-attacks from not only state actors but, increasingly, non-state actors as well.
The UK Government’s commitment to Yemen is unwavering. We welcome the ceasefire announcement from Saudi Arabia, and we encourage the Houthis to engage with that peace initiative and to cease their attacks into Saudi. As I say, we support the work of the United Nations special envoy and will continue not only to discharge our humanitarian duties to the people of Yemen but to work at a diplomatic level to bring about a permanent end to the conflict.
I thank my hon. Friend, who I know has been a stalwart champion of freedom of speech ever since we both entered the House. I reassure him. I spoke to Amal Clooney about the case; Maria Ressa was her client and worked very closely with her. I know that the Minister for Asia has raised this with the ambassador from the Philippines. I also discussed the case with Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State.
More broadly, there are three elements of our strategy for preserving media freedom around the world. We have a joint campaign with the Canadians to strengthen media freedoms and protect journalists. We are championing freedom of religious belief around the world and I will shortly—certainly before the summer recess—be bringing the new Magnitsky legislation to this House, both the legal regime and the first designations we will be adopting.
I have spoken to President Abbas and Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu previously. We make clear that the United Kingdom’s consistent position—in fairness, across all sides of this House—is that we want to see a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. We acutely feel that the vacuum without talks is very dangerous. We want to see talks proceed. That is why we are working with those partners in the region, Arab countries and the E3.
Let me be absolutely crystal clear to the House: we have made clear that any annexation, partial or full, in relation to further territory in the occupied territories and the west bank would be both contrary to international law and counterproductive to peace.
The UK’s position on imported goods from Israel remains unchanged. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has highlighted, we oppose annexation. We have made it clear to the Government of Israel that we regard it as contrary to international law, and also not in their own interests. That position will remain unchanged.
I agree with my hon. Friend in relation to the concerns he has raised about Iran’s conduct. We do want to keep the joint comprehensive plan of action. We would like to do better and we think there is an opportunity to do better in the future, but that is what we have got now. In order to hold Iran’s feet to the fire and to hold them to account, the United Kingdom, with our French and German partners, triggered the dispute resolution mechanism. I was in Berlin last week for E3 consultations about how we will approach this issue and how we will continue to hold Iran to account. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we will strive with all of our international partners to continue the arms embargo on Iran.
I am not sure I caught all of that, but I think I caught the gist. One of the things that covid-19 has shown is the need for global co-operation and, frankly, the good co-operation we have had with some that might ostensibly seem unlikely partners. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my Cuban opposite number, who during the coronavirus challenge provided proactive support to ensure that we could get passengers off the Braemar cruise ship—I think I am correct in saying there were something like 600 passengers at very high risk and a significant number of people with coronavirus symptoms—and back to the United Kingdom to the care they needed. We certainly welcome all of that collaboration.
The Foreign Office has put an incredible amount of work in. If the hon. Lady looks at the number of UK nationals who have been returned, it is over 1 million because of the work we did to keep commercial flights going. There were also the special charter flights we commissioned. We put £75 million in and tens of thousands of people got home via that route. I think we have had one of the most proactive and effective responses. It has been very difficult. We have also made sure there are loans for those who would otherwise be stranded. I am proud of the work across Government, but particularly from the consular division of the Foreign Office, to look after British nationals in their time of need.
It may be helpful to announce that, with effect from today, the length of time before the doors are locked in each Division will be reduced further. This will be 15 minutes for the first Division and, if possible, 12 minutes for subsequent successive Divisions.
Civil Service Appointments
The Prime Minister has outlined today in Dudley how the Government will move to a new phase of their coronavirus response and focus on building a strong domestic recovery. Yesterday, he also set out a new structure of Cabinet committees better to co-ordinate our foreign and domestic policies. These reforms underline the need for separating the roles of National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service.
These two senior positions have, of course, been separate under previous Administrations. Each is of vital importance, given the challenges ahead, and it is appropriate that they should be filled by two individuals who can serve in their respective posts through the rest of this Parliament. For this reason, the Prime Minister and Sir Mark Sedwill agreed some time ago that Sir Mark would stand down in September.
Sir Mark is a supremely dedicated, highly professional and hugely accomplished public servant. As the Prime Minister wrote in his letter of thanks to Sir Mark:
“You have done it all in Whitehall: from Afghanistan to the modernisation of the civil service; from immigration policy to Brexit and defeating coronavirus”.
I would like to add my own personal thanks for the exemplary contribution that Sir Mark has made to this country. Working alongside him has been both a pleasure and a privilege and I know that he will continue to contribute to the service of this country.
Sir Mark’s successor as NSA is also a distinguished public servant. David Frost has served for decades in our diplomatic service. A former ambassador, he has also been director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s policy planning staff and principal foreign policy adviser to the Foreign Secretary. He is now, of course, the UK’s negotiator, shaping our future relationship with the EU, covering issues from trade and tariffs to security and defence co-operation. As NSA, David Frost will help to deliver this Government’s vision for Britain’s place in the world, supporting the Prime Minister in reinvigorating our national security architecture and ensuring that we defend our interests and values across the globe.
The NSA is a relatively new position, but it is always an appointment for the Prime Minister of the day. The First Civil Service Commissioner has agreed the position can be regarded as a political rather than necessarily civil service appointment. While it is a unique role, David Frost’s status will be akin to that of a special envoy representing the UK abroad, speaking publicly and setting the agenda for policy making. He will not be a permanent secretary or a special adviser, and the civil service will support him in the same way as any other political appointee: with objectivity, honesty, integrity and impartiality.
A competition will be launched shortly for the combined role of Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service. This is open to existing and former permanent secretaries. We have been fortunate over the years to have been served by a series of outstanding Cabinet Secretaries, including Lords O’Donnell, Turnbull, Wilson, Butler and Armstrong, and, of course, Lord Heywood and Sir Mark. I have no doubt that their successor will continue their tradition of distinguished and dedicated public service.
I am grateful at least to the Cabinet Office Minister for turning up on behalf of the Home Secretary. I am also grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
After Sir Mark Sedwill’s letter on his departure—and I thank him for his work—No. 10 put out a press release indicating that the Prime Minister had appointed David Frost, currently the Prime Minister’s European adviser and chief negotiator with the EU, as the new National Security Adviser. The first duty of any Government is to keep people safe, and in carrying out that duty any Government should have objective, and at times challenging, advice from their National Security Adviser. That is why making a political appointment takes this Government into such dangerous territory.
Independent, impartial, specialist advice on national security is crucial. Prime Ministers come and go, but security threats remain and evolve. Can the Cabinet Office Minister give one good reason why this is a political appointment? Can he tell us to whom ultimately the new National Security Adviser is accountable, and if he will be subject to the code of conduct for special advisers in this new special envoy status that seems to be being bestowed upon him? Was the Civil Service Commission involved in this appointment, and if so can the Minister outline what the commission ruled? Have the intelligence agencies and the wider intelligence and security community been consulted on this being a political appointee? And at such a crucial time in our trade negotiations with the EU, how will Mr Frost’s additional responsibilities impact upon him being able to achieve the best outcome for the United Kingdom by the end of the year, as the Government have promised?
Also very worrying is the wider issue of a lobby briefing from February that No. 10 had a hit list of several permanent secretaries that it wanted to push out. Our civil service and our civil servants are world leading and we should be proud of the extraordinary work they do. Weak Prime Ministers take advice only from those who agree with them; those who put the national interest first should welcome different views and welcome challenge. So can Cabinet Office Minister tell us, quite simply: what is the Prime Minister so afraid of, and why will he not put his duty to keep people safe first?
Okay. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s kind words now.
The hon. Gentleman asked about objective and challenging advice. Sir David Frost is a distinguished public servant who has spent decades in diplomatic service and as such has given advice to Labour and Conservative Governments without fear or favour. There is no suggestion that Sir David is anything other than an exemplary public servant capable of discharging his duties and responsibilities with authority and integrity, and in a way which will guarantee the safety and security of all. He is, of course, accountable to the Prime Minister, and he will operate as other special envoys have. It is not a novelty, as the hon. Gentleman implied, to create special envoys: under Labour Ann Clwyd was made a special envoy on human rights in Iraq, Des Browne was the special envoy on Sri Lanka and, of course, Michael Levy was made special envoy to the middle east. In each of these roles, appropriate political appointments were made.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the First Civil Service Commissioner. The First Civil Service Commissioner, as I pointed out in my remarks, has agreed that it is entirely appropriate for this role to be carried out by a political appointee. I think it is important that all of us recognise that Prime Ministers, whether Labour, Conservative or any other colour, should have confidence in those advising them, and those advising them should also operate in a way that is true to the highest traditions of public service. That has always been the way in which David Frost and Sir Mark have carried out their duties, and I am confident that will be the case for the National Security Adviser in the future and for the future Cabinet Secretary.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I first pay tribute to Sir Mark Sedwill and thank him for his extraordinary public service over many years? I served on the National Security Council for nine years—six years as Home Secretary and three as Prime Minister. During that time, I listened to the expert independent advice from National Security Advisers.
On Saturday, my right hon. Friend said:
“We must be able to promote those with proven expertise”.
Why, then, is the new National Security Adviser a political appointee, with no proven expertise in national security?
Like my right hon. Friend, I, too, want to pay tribute again to Sir Mark. Having served in Cabinet when she was Prime Minister and Sir Mark was Cabinet Secretary, I appreciate just how much we all owe to him for his distinguished public service. I should also say that we have had previous National Security Advisers, all of them excellent, not all of whom were necessarily people who were steeped in the security world; some of them were distinguished diplomats in their own right. David Frost is a distinguished diplomat in his own right and it is entirely appropriate that the Prime Minister of the day should choose an adviser appropriate to the needs of the hour.
Of course, Sir Mark Sedwill should be thanked for his distinguished service, but the truth is that his card was marked last year when he warned the Cabinet that Brexit would be a disaster. He also said that the consequent recession could be worse than 2008 and that prices could go up by 10%. This is all about the revenge of the Vote Leave campaign, whose so-called mastermind is now pulling the strings of this Government—although one does have to wonder about the masterliness of a mind that thinks a good way to test one’s eyesight is to go for a 60-mile drive.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, will he confirm that this is the start of the hard rain that Dominic Cummings promised for the civil service? Secondly, it has long been thought desirable for the Government to have the assistance of a civil service that is neutral, objective, above party politics and free from the taint of apparent bias. Does the Minister think there is any merit left in those qualities? Thirdly and finally, Lord Ricketts, himself a former National Security Adviser, has queried whether Mr Frost, a former diplomat, has the necessary experience of the wider security and defence agenda to fulfil the role of National Security Adviser. Will the Minister detail for us what experience Mr Frost has in those fields? Or should we be left with the impression that, even when it comes to national security, it is more important to have yes men in post than people with the requisite experience?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her questions. The objectivity, neutrality and authority of our civil service is a source of pride to this Government, as it has been to previous Governments. I have been fortunate, in a variety of Departments, to work with civil servants of the highest standard, to whom I owe so much. I had the opportunity on Saturday, in the speech that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) referred to, to thank them for saving me from mistakes that I might have made and for ensuring that policies that this Government have developed were delivered effectively.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) asks about previous National Security Advisers and their range of expertise. It is true that Sir Peter, now Lord Ricketts, was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and permanent representative to NATO, but it is also the case that other previous National Security Advisers, including Mark Lyall Grant and Kim Darroch, were distinguished diplomats, without necessarily being steeped entirely in the world of security and intelligence. It is appropriate that the Prime Minister’s adviser on national security should be someone with diplomatic expertise. It is also the case, of course, that David Frost, in the negotiations that he is conducting with the European Union at the moment, is tackling and dealing with delicate questions of national security and defence co-operation as well.
May I thank Sir Mark for his service, on behalf of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee? Notwithstanding the particular nature of the appointment, is the combination of the National Security Adviser and the Cabinet Secretary posts not a recent innovation? Is my right hon. Friend’s reforming zeal not merely a restoration of things past? Could he also confirm that the Civil Service Commission will be obliged to recommend the appointment of a current or former permanent secretary for the role of Cabinet Secretary, rather than an outsider?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Civil Service Commission has advised, and the Prime Minister has agreed, that it should be either a current or former permanent secretary who becomes the next Cabinet Secretary. He is also right that traditionally the roles of National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary have been split. When former Prime Minister David Cameron was in opposition, the then principal national security adviser was of course a political appointee.
Will the new politically appointed special envoy and National Security Adviser be responsible for the performance reviews of the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ? Does the Minister agree that nothing should be done to suggest any political interference in the crucial intelligence agencies that support our national interest?
In a speech at the weekend, my right hon. Friend set out a wider strategy for civil service reform and referenced President F. D. R. He said:
“FDR asked his government to remember the forgotten man. In the 2016 referendum those who had been too often forgotten asked to be remembered”.
With that in mind, what steps is he taking to ensure that my constituents in Redcar and Cleveland will never be forgotten and that they have a civil service that truly works for them?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have a superb civil service, but it is also important that we make sure it serves the people of this country even better. The Prime Minister in his speech in Dudley today announced that part of the doubling down on levelling up was making sure that more important policy-making roles in our civil service were carried out closer to people, including on Teesside.
In his Ditchley lecture at the weekend, the Minister said:
“How can we in Government be less southern, less middle class, less reliant on those with social science qualifications and more welcoming to those with physical science and mathematical qualifications”?
I am pleased the Government now think that experts are important, but can he set out how his Ditchley commitments were taken into account in the political appointment of a non-expert and arguably initially part-time new National Security Adviser?
There is no question but that David Frost is an expert. Someone who spent decades in diplomatic service, is currently conducting a complex international negotiation and was head of policy and planning at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is hardly an ingénue in the world of foreign affairs, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing out that we need to be a little less southern. Voices from Lancashire and Scotland are always important in the national conversation.
Following up what the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said, may I ask who reports to who? Do members of the various security services report to the National Security Adviser or to a Cabinet Minister? Does the National Security Adviser report directly to the Prime Minister or to another person?
Could the Minister try a wee bit harder to explain to everyone watching why Sir Simon McDonald, Sir Philip Rutnam, Sir Kim Darroch and now Sir Mark Sedwill have been hung out to dry by the Government, when a man with great power but no responsibility, who can flout laws, and who is openly laughed at and disbelieved by the Great British public still has a job?
I am not sure to whom the hon. Gentleman is referring—[Interruption.] I’m not, I’m not—I’m a simple soul. I am not sure to whom he was referring in the second part of his question, but all those he mentioned are distinguished public servants. In particular, I would like to place on the record my thanks to Sir Simon McDonald for the excellent work he has done, and is still doing, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and to Sir Kim Darroch, who was a very distinguished National Security Adviser as well as a great ambassador to the United States.
Given the timing of David Frost’s appointment, could the Minister please outline the extent to which security considerations will be on the table during our Brexit negotiations and, in particular, on any role that David Frost might have in the forthcoming integrated review?
It is the case, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, that one aspect of our negotiations on our future relationship with the European Union relates to internal security as well as defence co-operation, and Mr Frost is well-equipped, well-briefed and authoritative on those issues. It is also the case that an integrated review of defence, aid and foreign policy will be carried out by the National Security Council. It will be the case that David Frost will lead on that, ably assisted by the two deputy national security advisers and, of course, ultimately accountable to the National Security Council itself, which is a Cabinet Committee.
I served on the National Security Council in the first two and a half years after it was set up—with my right hon. Friend in fact—and it does seem to me that it is clearly sensible to have the National Security Adviser separate from the head of the civil service. Both are very exacting roles: they may fit closely together, but they are very different. I have read digitally my right hon. Friend’s brilliant, and long, speech at the weekend: will he confirm the centrality of the National Security Council—the reform that we introduced in 2010—and in particular in its role of wiring together defence, diplomacy and development in our national interest?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on displaying the stamina to read all of the speech. It would have been a shorter speech had I had the time to edit it appropriately. His point is absolutely correct. The creation of the National Security Council was an innovation pioneered by David Cameron when he was in Opposition. The potential National Security Adviser at that time was a political appointee, and it was the case when the coalition Government was formed that the distinguished figure of Lord Ricketts, then Sir Peter Ricketts, became the first National Security Adviser. It is an innovation in the governance of the UK, but it is one that has served us well, and it is of course the case that national security advisers in other countries are very often political appointees.
May I thank Sir Mark for his service and wish his successor all the best? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fundamental changes that are needed in the civil service go beyond personnel changes at the top and need to reflect the people’s priorities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course it is the case that there will always be turnover in the civil service. The normal length of tenure for someone in a permanent secretary role is five years, and it is also the case that previous Governments, in order to ensure that they could achieve their agenda, had political appointees. It was the case that the previous Labour Government had, in the persons of Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, two political appointees who were given the power through Order in Council to give direction to civil servants. My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure we have the broadest possible talent pool and an exciting agenda of reform.
We have heard that we lost Kim Darroch, Philip Rutnam, Simon McDonald and now Mark Sedwill. In appointing Sir David Frost as National Security Adviser, is this what the Minister meant in June 2016 when he said that
“people in this country have had enough of experts”?
Does he believe now that we have gone from “Yes, Minister” to “Yes, special adviser”?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of what happened in 2016, when the people of this country voted to leave the European Union. I am afraid that he has edited what I said at the time, which was that we had had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms that had got things wrong in the past. I was specifically referring to the legions of economic modellers in organisations like the IMF and the CBI who argued that we should join the euro and then were proven wrong because we were successful outside the euro. My own view is that expertise is to be applauded and should be rewarded, particularly in quoting opposing politicians. So I hope that he will look back again at the record and gently correct it.
I strongly support the split of the two roles; they are very big and very different jobs. When the Government come to appoint a new Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, will they pay special attention to the need to improve the accuracy, timeliness and relevance of data being used by chief executives and other senior managers throughout the civil service and the agencies, as well as by Ministers, so that they can ask the right questions and provide the right supervision? There could be a lot of improvement in that area.
My right hon. Friend is right. He was intimately involved in a programme of Whitehall reform when he was head of the Prime Minister’s policy unit in the 1980s, as a very young man. The innovations that were brought in at that time under political appointees such as Sir John Hoskyns and others helped to create the “next steps” agencies, which were so vital in ensuring that there was greater accountability in the delivery of public services. We could do well to learn from some of the examples that he set.
Under this Dominic Cummings Government, senior civil servants are in the firing line like never before, with three resignations and one industrial tribunal all in the space of six months. What steps will the Minister take to end this toxic workplace environment for senior civil servants, or can we expect a season of hard rain which puts us on a slippery slope towards US-style yes-men government based on political appointments?
Well, the Scottish National party knows something about the importance of political appointments in government in order to deliver its agenda. It is only fair to record that, far from there being any sort of toxicity, the environment in which our civil servants work is one characterised by their determination to put public service first, and for that I thank them.
What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that, rather than leading to delays and disruptions, these changes to the civil service’s top team will turbo-charge the Government’s levelling-up agenda—an agenda that the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to today?
My hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that we reform how the Government work in order to deliver better for the people whose taxes we spend and in whose name we act. The Prime Minister’s speech in Dudley today was a clarion cry for reform, and we need to ensure that Government are in a position to deliver it.
Sir Mark Sedwill steps down at the end of September and will be replaced as National Security Adviser by David Frost, who will also remain the EU chief negotiator, which he says will be his “top single priority” until the negotiations have concluded. If the negotiations carry on into October and beyond, who will have the nation’s security as their top single priority, or is this just a case of misapplied persistent experimentation?
Like me, the right hon. Gentleman is a believer in experimentation, scientific method, empiricism and pragmatism. As we both know, the negotiations with the European Union are accelerating at the moment, as both sides seek to find a conclusion over the course of the next five weeks.
I am sure the Minister agrees that the incorruptibility and independence of mind of the civil service is one of the key features of our government, but it occurs to me that there may be a bit of hype around this issue. Surely someone who spends decades as a professional diplomat can hardly be accused of not knowing anything about national security, and surely independence is in their DNA. There is also hype about all these advisers—about Dominic Cummings and David Frost. These people just give advice. Can we not rely on the Prime Minister and the Minister to actually run the country? They are quite capable, are they not?
The Minister has said that he believes that civil service objectivity, neutrality and expertise is a source of pride, so why are his Government riding roughshod over that objectivity, neutrality and expertise and politicising a very important national security appointment?
I should say that we never had a National Security Adviser under a Labour Government. Some of us might think that we were well or poorly governed at that time, but it seems to me slightly recherché of the Labour party to object to the evolution of a role that it had no part in either creating or advocating.
Can my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to attract new talent to the civil service and ensure that we have the right people in the right job and the right location, so that the civil service works for all constituencies, such as Hyndburn and Haslingden?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the speech to which some hon. Members referred earlier, I made the point that we needed to disperse decision making in the civil service, and one of the locations I suggested we should think about locating more key decision makers was east Lancashire.
From addressing nuclear proliferation to countering terrorism, there is a need to build and sustain relationships with European allies and, indeed, to secure a future relationship deal on policing and security co-operation. So how do the Government plan to reconcile David Frost’s role as National Security Adviser with his role as Brexit negotiator, in which he is currently engaging in brinkmanship, and indeed the risk of no deal at the end of the year?
Having served in Afghanistan with Sir Mark, can I add my thanks to him as a hugely distinguished civil servant, diplomat and indeed, in many ways, our top securocrat? Can I also pay tribute to the work that he has achieved in reforming the government in the last few years?
Before the new National Security Adviser appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee, as he surely will in his new post—I am sure the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will add weight to make sure that that representation or that parliamentary scrutiny happens—can my right hon. Friend assure me that the new National Security Adviser will actually work to build up alliances, not just simply talk about Britain first?
My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee, makes a very important point. David Frost has already appeared in front of Select Committees—the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union and also the House of Lords European Union Committee—and I am sure that he would be delighted to take up that invitation. As my hon. Friend quite rightly points out, the building and maintenance of alliances are critical to projecting our interests and protecting our values globally.
Can I add my thanks to Mark Sedwill for his work both in security and as Cabinet Secretary? Mr Frost is a political appointment. He has been given a seat in the other place, but he is not a Minister; he is a special envoy. Picking up on the question that the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has just raised, will the ISC and other Committees that scrutinise his work be able to summon him before them to scrutinise what he is doing? That is important if we are going to have clear parliamentary oversight of his role. I think that needs clarifying, because the Minister in his reply to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee did not answer that question.
The civil service review into the effectiveness of the National Security Council concluded:
“The NSC demonstrates the potential benefits of a ‘strong grip’ at the centre and the ‘halo effect’ of consistent prime ministerial investment of time and effort in committee work.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this strong grip will only be increased by the appointment of David Frost as National Security Adviser, a person who works effectively with the Prime Minister, has his full support and has demonstrated impressive ability during the trade negotiations with the European Union and during his long diplomatic career?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is important that someone in that role commands the confidence of the Prime Minister and is capable of working effectively with him. I should say—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) makes a comment from a sedentary position. The Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 were responsible for many good things, but the idea that they were entirely free of any political appointees will, for most students of contemporary history, seem to be a form of selective amnesia.
During an evidence session of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last March, Mark Sedwill came under considerable scrutiny regarding the demands of fulfilling two very important roles. The Minister is now asking David Frost potentially to do the same, as he is currently the UK Government’s chief Brexit negotiator and, as was mentioned earlier, he has stated that that is his “top single priority”. Given his lack of experience of the wider security and defence agenda, does the Minister not think that his entire focus from day one should go on this new job, or is the role of National Security Adviser now reduced to being a yes man to the Prime Minister?
I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that the role of National Security Adviser did not exist before 2010; it was created by David Cameron as Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman is also quite wrong to say that David Frost has no experience in these areas. He is a distinguished diplomat, he has been an ambassador, and he is dealing with negotiations at the moment that involve security and defence co-operation.
Does my right hon. Friend share my genuine confusion at the ambivalence of those on the Opposition Benches and at the fact that someone who was first appointed to the Foreign Office at a time when the shadow Home Secretary was seven years old and who has served in Denmark, Paris, Cyprus and the United Nations does not command their full support?
If I am honest, I do not really care who the Prime Minister appoints as his National Security Adviser. It is entirely up to him; he can appoint all the duff ambassadors who have ever walked through the Foreign Office, if that is what he wants to do. However, my fear is that in creating this mixed role, where somebody is a quasi-Minister who has been given a job for life in the House of Lords, who is a member of the legislature but it is meant to be a special adviser, and who is a special adviser who can none the less give direction to civil servants, he has created Frankenstein’s monster.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the point that the choice of National Security Adviser is properly one for the Prime Minister. I dissent from the assertion that there was anything duff about the ambassadorial role that David Frost played. He has been a very distinguished civil servant—
He was a very distinguished civil servant, and it is certainly the case that those whom I know who work in the Foreign Office have nothing but praise for him. Talking about political appointments, the distinguished former Cabinet Minister, Paul Boateng, was appointed by a Labour Government as high commissioner to South Africa and, as I mentioned earlier, a Member of the House of Lords, Michael Levy, again a distinguished figure who was a fundraiser for the Labour party, was appointed as a special envoy to Israel. My own view is: Michael Levy, Paul Boateng—good appointments; David Frost—excellent appointment.
The National Security Adviser is clearly a very important role. It should be a separate role and I am sure that David Frost is well qualified to do it. On the confidentiality of secure Government information, could the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster update the House on what happened to the investigation into the leak of the diplomatic telegrams from Sir Kim Darroch?
I congratulate the Secretary of State for making the most outrageous points and keeping a straight face. He is very good at doing that. Will he answer the question asked right at the beginning of this debate by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)? Precisely what are the new National Security Adviser’s qualifications in national security, which, after all, all of us care about because it is about the safety and security of each and every person in this country? What are his specific qualifications and expertise, and why on earth, given his other job, was he considered even for a second for this role?
I know it was salty, but nevertheless there was an air of sweetness about it as well.
The broader point, though, is that, as I mentioned earlier, David Frost is involved in one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations that has ever been conducted, and a diplomatic negotiation that relates specifically to defence and security co-operation as well as to tariffs and trade. He has been a civil servant—a diplomat—for decades. It is the case that Mark Lyall Grant, who was National Security Adviser, and Kim Darroch, who was National Security Adviser, were not people who were steeped in the world of intelligence and security; they were gifted diplomats and gifted public servants, and of course they were supported, as David will be, by a superb team in the National Security Secretariat.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key lesson from all research about politically led organisations is that one-size-fits-all structures are doomed to fail, that leaders need to be able to structure their top teams to best deploy the available talent, and that leaders remain politically accountable for any decisions that they take as a result of their advice?
My hon. Friend, who is a very distinguished council leader, is absolutely right. During the second world war, for example, the Churchill-Attlee Government appointed people such as Professor Frederick Lindemann, who came from outside Whitehall but added specific expertise. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach towards government; what it does, when it is done well, is marry the expertise of the civil service with challenge from politicians and others.
To my mind, it is just inexplicable that the Government would seek to completely overhaul the civil service at a time when stability and clarity are crucial in tackling the covid crisis. Why on earth have the Government chosen a time of unprecedented uncertainty to dismiss the head of the civil service and then to set out on the inherently ideological vision of the unelected Dominic Cummings to politicise the UK’s world-class civil service?
I am glad that the hon. Lady says that the UK’s civil service is world-class. That is one of the reasons why I hope that Scotland will continue to benefit from its expertise and authority and that the chimera of separatism will be seen off. I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s paean of praise to the UK Government is shared across Scotland between now and May.
I join many colleagues across the House in paying tribute to Sir Mark Sedwill for his many years of distinguished service. Today, we heard the Prime Minister talk about levelling up and about how talent is spread right across our country. There is great talent in Bishop Auckland, but many young people in the north-east do not see the civil service as an achievable place to work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting some major elements of the civil service out of London—perhaps into County Durham—is a great start to making that happen?
My hon. Friend is spot on. Whether they are in Newcastle, County Durham or Teesside, we need to make sure that the many talented young people in the north-east regard public service as within their reach. We need to bring Government closer to them to better reflect the diversity of this country, and to better reflect the cognitive diversity that means having appropriate challenge for Government.
The first duty of any Government is to keep their citizens and their country safe and secure. However, the Prime Minister, having gradually forced out a highly respected national security expert, has decided to replace him as National Security Adviser with his political friend—someone who has never worked in defence or security intelligence and who, in fact, until recently was the head of the Scotch Whisky Association and the chief executive officer of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Can the Minister explain why the Government hate hiring experts? Will he also confirm widespread rumours that the Prime Minister believes his plumber should be the next manager of the England football team?
My right hon. Friend may not be aware that there was a six-month stand-off in 2018 between the then Defence Committee and No. 10 over whether Sir Mark Sedwill, newly appointed as National Security Adviser, should appear before that Committee, because it was argued that he appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy and he need not come to us. Can my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that this National Security Adviser will indeed testify as required before all relevant Committees, including the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee and, who knows, the ISC, if it is re-established by then?
I very much take on board my right hon. Friend’s point. it is the case that normally for any particular official or Minister there will be one Select Committee, which is the principal area to which they will be accountable. But, speaking for myself in my own role, I have been held accountable by the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union as well as by PACAC. I know that David Frost will want to engage with all the Committees of this House and the other place in order to ensure appropriate scrutiny.
The Minister must have misheard the question from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, but, because I am very kind, I will ask him again. Will the party politically appointed National Security Adviser be responsible for the performance reviews of the independent heads of intelligence and security services?
I know that the hon. Lady was a very successful teacher before she came to this place, so I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to resit the exam, and I hope that I will be able to pass it this time. It will not be the case that there will be any individual responsible for that, no.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that appointments to civil service positions need to reflect the experience of people of all backgrounds to be relevant to the needs of the hour? That means all types of school, all parts of the country, people from the charity sector and the private sector, as well, of course, as talented and skilled public servants?
The idea that this is about social mobility is for the birds. General Sir Richard Barrons, the former chief of Joint Forces Command and indeed a Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, described this as
“a move for ‘chumocracy’. Someone in Boris Johnson’s inner circle is being moved higher up the inner circle”
He also said that
“when it comes to matters of security, his knowledge is zero, and that is a matter of concern.”
One of the key lessons from the Chilcot inquiry was the importance of speaking truth to power. How can a political appointee of this nature, part of the chumocracy, speak truth to power?